Sean Worth: Coalition model is now dead

Written by Sean Worth on 17 June 2014 in Opinion

There is some truth in the recent attack on Downing Street by Michael Gove's former adviser

Downing Street lacks grip, direction and calibre – it's a charge that's been made before and is being made again this week. This time more uncomfortably, however, since it comes from ex-Michael Gove aide, Dominic Cummings, who attacks vehemently the lack of purpose among his own Tory colleagues.  

Beneath the theatre of this intervention and the huge embarrassment it caused Downing Street, is a kernel of truth. It's certainly the case that No10 hasn't given the machinery of government anything like the political steer of either the Blair or Thatcher administrations, for example.

This is, however, in large part a product of a form of coalition governing that I fear is now being tested to absolute bankruptcy. Forming a coalition in 2010 that would share power on every front of decision-making will, I believe, come to be viewed as a serious mistake – one not to be repeated if we end up with another coalition next May.

The central issue to understand here is how Whitehall operates. Even though it currently administers a coalition, the government machine in fact still has levers that respond to only very central direction. The most important figure being the sitting Prime Minister: the ultimate boss of everybody in the system, whether they like it or not, and thus the only figure who can get the machine to steer in any direction.  Consider Tony Blair's health and education reforms, for example, which faced great civil service opposition, but (mostly) ground through because ultimately, the machine could not legitimately resist his will.

The civil service administering the Coalition, however, sees its most challenging demands coming not from the top but out in the departments – who in turn have to clear policy at the centre, which itself lacks shared political values. It is a recipe for internal politicking, weak compromises and reform-phobia.

Indeed, while the coalition partners have rubbed along and achieved more than many expected, the really big questions – like tackling our mountainous national debt, how on earth to fund the NHS beyond the next decade, or how we'll meet massive demand for housebuilding while protecting the greenbelt – remain largely untouched.

Coalition has also damaged its governing parties. Nick Clegg, especially, struggles to find even any recognition for achievement whilst he's perceived to be the junior partner on every decision. It's why I believe the model of coalition we have now is dead.

Future coalitions will be formed by parties demanding explicit control of distinct areas of policy, rather than simply sharing power. The principal powers, notably tax and spend, and defence decisions, must be shared, but governing leaders will carve out defining areas of political territory on which to build the personal crusades needed to push radical reforms that really get them noticed.

Perhaps then, there will also be fewer idealists leaving power with a very public axe to grind.


About the author

Sean Worth is a former special adviser to David Cameron in Downing Street and is a director at Quiller Consultants.

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